Monday, March 4, 2019

album review: 'weezer (the black album)' by weezer

So I'll say it: Weezer should not have gotten famous off the Blue Album.

Now if this sounds insane, let me qualify that I'm not saying the album is bad - it's a great listen, arguably one of their best. I'm also not saying that they didn't deserve a cult following or that album shouldn't become a cult classic with time - again, given what it represented in the mid-90s to a swathe of kids looking for the middleground between power pop, indie rock, and grunge, that album fits a role. But with the benefit of hindsight, it was a project that put Weezer on the very top and it's been abundantly clear that Rivers Cuomo has reacted badly to the fame brought on by that project. First you had Pinkerton, an album that won its critical acclaim decades later from those who understood what it meant in emo but was savaged by fans and the critical press alike - and considering Pinkerton was written in a moment of great but ugly vulnerability, it slammed the door on such material for years to come, not helped by the growth of mainstream-accessible emo in the years to come. And so Weezer retreated into self-aware irony, a hermetic vacuum seal of detachment that allowed them become increasingly cynical with every passing year and even mine a real hit out of it... but the returns were diminishing. It wouldn't be until 2014 where the band 'returned to their roots' with Everything Will Be All Right In The End to regain some acclaim from the fans and critics... but what then? Again, it's hard to ignore how much of Weezer's work reads as responses to a long-splintered and impossible-to-please fanbase that can't comprehend the emotional turmoil that spawned a project like Pinkerton - to say nothing of the explosive and immediate backlash it faced - and thus going back through both the White album and Pacific Daydream, it's not hard to place them in the context of Rivers Cuomo's arrested development, with no clear idea where to turn. You want to hope that there's a little more emotional maturity and insight... until you realize through interviews and annotations that it's not coming, and why in the Nine Hells would he want to grow up anyway, if that's all the fans want? So why not put out a cheap and mostly embarrassing album of covers in the Teal Album - people seem to like the adolescent shitposting, why not give them what they want?

Well, to get the answer to that, it looked like we had to go to the Black album, the second project Weezer is releasing in 2019, framed as one of their darkest albums to date and one that is polarizing critics and fans alike - mostly because it's reportedly framed as a response to them. Now if you've been reading most of Weezer's extended discography as a response to their opening success, especially in recent years, this shouldn't come as a surprise - a tension where the center cannot hold - but can we at least get some decent music along the way?

Honestly... not really. Now let me get this out of the way first, on my first few listens I thought this project is better than Pacific Daydream - hell probably even more listenable than that Teal album thing, at least to me. But if you're looking for a project where it becomes patently obvious Weezer is swallowing their own tail, it is this one - and all the more alarming is that they seemed to have realized halfway through that this might be a bad idea and tried to pivot to anything else. All of which leaves the Black album as something of a mess... and yet it's sadly not quite as interesting that it should be, a bunch of bad ideas only redeemed to mediocrity by the fact that Weezer can still construct a decent tune.

But even how they're doing this is worth noting, so let's start with compositions and production, the latter of which was handled this time by David Sitek of TV On The Radio - and not well, for the record. I could swear I've said this before and I'll say it again: while we are years away from Matt Sharp's essential basslines, that interplay is one of the focal points to why their first two albums were so great and yet again with the Black album nobody seems to really care about them. Oh, you can occasionally hear them when they're trying desperately to punch up some sort of groove like on the opener 'Can't Knock The Hustle', but most of the low-end seems completely removed from the mix... which is kind of important if you're trying to flip the sound into darker territory. Yeah, it looks like they're integrating more minor chord progressions in the main melodies and continuing to pull from the sunshine pop of the last project does lead to a few good moments, like the piano-backed 'High As A Kite' and the hazy, pseudo-Coldplay 'I'm Just Being Honest' - but even that song is a recycling of a tune from Rivers Cuomo's j-rock side project Scott & Rivers, and the closing track 'California Snow' was originally tied to a movie soundtrack from last year - kind of makes sense, given how the thicker, buzzy synths and pseudo-rapping doesn't really match much of the instrumental palette on this project as a whole. If anything while it might sound a bit more upbeat and give the melodies a bit more flair, the acoustic guitars sound incredibly sickly, the percussion is weary or undercooked, and moments where the album could build momentum like in the pseudo-disco touches around 'Too Many Thoughts In My Head' just turn into a runny mess - same case for the hook of 'Living In L.A.', as a matter of fact, and that doesn't count the grainy films over 'Zombie Bastards' and 'Byzantine' that don't sound well mixed at all!

But maybe the discordance is part of the point? After all, this is one that was framed as the 'dark one', Weezer trying to get murky and unsettling - and along the way give a giant middle finger to everyone who want them to revisit the emotional vulnerability and rawness of Pinkerton. And while they don't really spare themselves - some of the sad sack sarcasm doesn't exactly net positive rewards on 'Piece Of Cake' and 'I'm Just Being Honest', it's hard to ignore barbs tossed at critics on 'Can't Knock The Hustle' or a legion of unthinking fans on 'Zombie Bastards', or even at the algorithm dominated industry overwhelming them on 'Too Many Thoughts In My Head' - and if I didn't make it clear from the beginning, I will here: I don't mind these shots. Hell, Weezer is more entitled to take them than a lot of acts, and if they want to break free and make whatever the hell they want, all the power to them, it's one reason why the exuberance of 'High As A Kite' at least feels real. But as you get deeper into the album, you slowly come to realize that Rivers Cuomo might be picking up one of the most nakedly unattractive ways of avoiding responsibility yet: nihilism - because hey, why not just do tons of drugs and fuck around, the creation of art is vanity upon vanities anyway, none of it matters, right? 

And here's where I hit my breaking point - again, I've said it time and time again, but with Weezer it's all the more important: nihilistic, self-consuming art without any sense of deeper message not only grates on my nerves but can get really goddamn tedious especially coming from faux-detached, lazy Gen-Xers, and Weezer hits into both of them in a big way. You might complain about the algorithms and an overload of information on 'Too Many Thoughts In My Head', but you chose to make a cover album of shitposts. You chose to make your closing track an extended cocaine reference. And while I might agree with 'Byzantine' - cowritten by Laura Jane Grace and you can really tell - how the complexity is often in the eye of the beholder, it's not an excuse to stop trying! And while a huge part of this is anchored in Rivers Cuomo's delivery - he can't sell anger or go-for-broke recklessness with any kind of convincing power and even his attempts at dejection feel mostly underwritten - what turned me against this album outright was 'The Prince Who Wanted Everything', which on the surface seems like a mostly sincere tribute to the late Prince through a parade of references... but then you notice how more of the actual bars seem to focus on those stealing from his estate or how pointless all his strides towards artistic freedom and success appear after his death, or even how the hook is structured as 'the prince who wanted everything', as if wanting artistic freedom or success or to create freely is something to be derided! And the sad fact is that he confirmed some of that in side interviews - so, Rivers, I say this from the bottom of my heart: nothing you have or ever will create will ever be on the level of Prince's best, both in musicality and content, and your lazy justification of non-effort both reeks of wasted privilege and artistic bankruptcy. 

So yeah, I may have begun this whole endeavor trying to give Weezer every benefit of the doubt, but given they've stopped caring and just want to drift away on a nihilistic bender, the gloves are coming off - because I don't think I've seen a less consistent band squander this many chances and fame. This is Weezer's thirteenth album, and of that number I'd say maybe four or five are at least good - that's a failing record over twenty five years. And the fans and critics have tolerated multiple periods in their career of emotionally inert shitposting with increasingly vapid results, an astonishing waste of talent and good will that for me is starting to rival that of Eminem... but at least Em would never have the audacity to say the legacy of a man like Prince doesn't matter. The meaning of life is to give life meaning, Rivers Cuomo - and you should have retired into obscurity fifteen years ago, because it's clear you've stopped caring about making something that matters. 4/10, no recommendation, and let's give this project precisely what it deserves: obscurity.

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